Buchholz, and co-investigators Lindsay Robinson of the University of Guelph, and Vera Mazurak of the University of Alberta have embarked on a study called IMPACt (Inflammation, Metabolic syndrome, Polyunsaturated fat in Adult Canadians) to find out what effect a small change in nutrition can have on our body’s makeup.
They plan to look at one of the biggest fad food products to hit the market in recent years—Omega-3 fortified foods. Eggs, yogurt, milk, and even bread products bear the Omega-3 label. But what, if anything, do these Omega-3 foods actually do for the human body? The IMPACt study will be one of the first to address this specific question.
By observing a group of overweight men at risk of cardiovascular disease as they follow a diet of Omega-3 fortified foods, the investigators will uncover whether the Omega-3 foods have the same protective effects as concentrated Omega-3.
To do this in-depth nutrition study, Buchholz required special equipment, which she got at her brand new lab at Guelph—completed just this past fall. The lab demonstrates just how far physiological testing has come. Sitting in one corner is an archaic, sarcophagus-like, steel dunk tank, which was once the only way to measure body composition. Research subjects would be submerged in the water-filled tank eight to 10 times while a scientist measured how much water was displaced. “It was very user unfriendly,” says Buchholz. “Especially, if like me, you’re claustrophobic.”
Fortunately, those days are long gone and the dunk tank is only an artifact. Today, body composition is measured, among other ways, using a space-age device called a BOD POD®. Wearing only a bathing suit and swim cap, a person sits in the egg-shaped chamber for approximately 2 minutes. The BOD POD calculates a person’s body composition by measuring and analyzing air displacement and flow. The lab’s other equipment can measure bone density and energy metabolism (the number of calories burned by the body at rest and after eating).
Above all, the lab lets researchers “measure everything in one space instead of sending people to different places for different tests. It’s the only place in Ontario and one of a few in Canada where you can do body composition and metabolism studies in one consolidated facility,” affirms Buchholz.
Increased Omega-3 in the diet has been shown to lower triglycerides, a major risk factor for heart disease. In some animal models, it has also been shown to reduce body fat. However, most studies have focused on concentrated sources of Omega-3, like fish oil. The effect of Omega-3 fortified yogurt, eggs, bread, and the like is still uncertain.
Despite this lack of solid evidence, the Omega-3 fortified food market in North America is worth $2 billion and is expected to grow to $7 billion in the next three years, as reported in 2007 by U.S. market research publisher Packaged Facts. Some food marketers have gone ahead and put bold claims on their Omega-3 food products, based on fish oil research studies. The IMPACt study will be one of the first to show whether the claims hold water, or in this case, nutrition. “The ramifications could be huge,” says Andrea Buchholz, one of the IMPACt researchers. “We are seeing if marketers’ claims are correct. Often marketing gets too far ahead of the science game, so we hope to catch up.”
The IMPACt study could also help guide public health nutrition recommendations regarding Omega-3, which are largely nonexistent. The average Canadian consumes about 150mg/day of EPA and DHA, the most active and important sources of Omega-3. Comparatively, in Japan—where fish makes up a greater portion of the diet and where there is lower risk of cardiovascular disease—nutrition experts recommend 2,600mg of Omega-3.
Because our bodies cannot naturally produce Omega-3, in order to reach that high level of intake, consumers must take supplements or select a variety of enriched foods that contribute to an overall daily serving, as in the case of Vitamin C. However, given that fish oil is the major source of Omega-3, the thought of such supplements is not very appetizing. “Some people complain of burping up mackerel,” says Buchholz. “It’s not highly palatable.”
As a result, fortified food producers hope that people will be more likely to eat foods enriched with DHA and EPA sources of Omega-3. One of the largest producers of Omega-3 food supplements and fish oil powder used to fortify foods is Ocean Nutrition Canada. The Nova Scotia-based company fortifies all types of foods with Omega-3, from orange juice to margarine to peanut butter.
Lori Covert, Vice-President Marketing and Communications for Ocean Nutrition, hopes that research like Buchholz’s will help government regulators move forward on health recommendations regarding Omega-3. “There have been over 8,000 scientific papers about the health benefits of Omega-3,” she says. “The science is so far in advance of the regulatory group that they have a lot of catching up to do.”
Buchholz and colleagues’ research will determine the effects of such fortified foods on risk factors for heart disease, and will ultimately help consumers understand and decide how best to include Omega-3 in their diets.
No single research approach can fully determine the role of Omega-3 fortified foods in the human diet. The impact of Omega-3 is just too wide-ranging. Thus, the IMPACt study is tackling the body fat question from three different sides, capitalizing on each collaborator’s unique interests and expertise.
Andrea Buchholz has teamed up with University of Guelph colleague Lindsay Robinson and Vera Mazurak, a molecular biochemist in Edmonton. Buchholz will measure the amount of fat throughout the body and relate that to human health. Robinson will find inflammation markers in the collected blood samples, connecting inflammation and body fat. And Mazurak will look at the composition of body fat and whether Omega-3s are being incorporated into fat cells.
“Together, our shared resources and expertise mean we can address this question that none of us could tackle on our own,” says Mazurak.
Check out the DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute at the University of Guelph.